This is Chapter 2 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
I hadn’t locked my outer office door but I had definitely shut it. Now it was ajar. I stopped jogging. Had Mathead and Scabman returned? Voices from inside reassured me. They didn’t sound like the tweakers’ voices, and whoever was in there wasn’t trying to hide their presence. Good news and good news.
I stood for a moment just outside the door. The paint announcing my firm’s name was fresh enough that it still released fumes to coat the back of my throat with a bad taste. I had been lying to myself for months, but only recently felt ready to lie to the world. S.T.A.T.Ic. and Watkins, Private Investigations. As it always did, seeing Watkins, my uncle’s name, gave me a sudden douse of sadness followed by a quick spray of chutzpah. He had always been my staunchest supporter and I missed him every damn day. Private investigator. He’d love it. We’ll see how long I stick with it. I’ve had more jobs than all my friends, combined. But this one feels different. It feels right. And I need one that feels right.
Correct, my last name is an acronym. My full name is Veronica Sheridan Taggart Ambrose Taggart Ickovic. Just about everybody calls me Nica. My acronymic identity is constructed of family, first love, big mistake, ever hopeful (wishful thinking) revisit of first love, tragic true love. The last couple years of my life have been as stable as old dynamite, so I was happy to discover this acronym, this promise of no more disruption. I adopted the acronym as part of my effort to find my next step – and a direction worth heading. Someday I might go back full circle and become S.T.A.T.Ic.S., but for now I don’t want to move past Ickovic. I haven’t washed Ick’s last load of laundry, either.
My office is like Philip Marlowe’s. My outer door is rarely locked and opens to a small outer waiting room for potential clients. In the waiting room perched a middle-aged couple who looked even more uncomfortable than they should have been from sitting on the no-frills wooden chairs. The couple seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place them until the woman raised her chin, a gesture of pride as a defense against scrutiny. I had seen that gesture some minutes and halls ago. This was the couple that had been arguing with the substitute custodian.
“Good afternoon,” I said noncommittally.
The man wore a loose embroidered overshirt, summer garb for a Mexican gentleman. He had a shy smile which he used in lieu of umming or you knowing as he spoke. He didn’t seem confident speaking in English, although his grammar was good and his accent was weathered.”Are you [smile] senorita Static, we are in need of a [smile] private detective.”
“Yup, that’s me. Let’s talk in here, it’s more comfortable.” I unlocked the door to the inner office, which was sparse but not spartan. The desk matched the file cabinets and the chairs were upholstered. The couple looked around at the seating options, and of the four chairs, chose the pair closest to the door. A fifth seating option was my futon, currently folded into a lounge chair. I didn’t want potential clients sitting on my bed, so during the day I kept it littered with papers as though that is where I sat to do my work.
“We are Aurelio and Norma Garcia. We are [smile] … we must find …[smile] we seek [smile] -”
Norma jutted her chin and interrupted. “Our goddaughter is missing. Please find her.”
“How old is she?”
“She has fifteen years.”
“How long has she been missing?”
“Did her parents send you here?”
“There is only her mother. And her mother says wait until Edith comes home, she will come back when she is ready. But the time is too long.”
“I think you are right to be concerned. Do you know why she may have left?”
They paused to think about this. “We think [smile] she had a fight with her mother.”
“I will need to speak with the mother.”
“Does that mean you will help us?”
Rubber, meet road. I had had this debate internally, without resolution. I wanted to be a detective and thought I could be a good one. I had the right innate skills and personality. I simply lacked the license and okay experience and maybe training. I figured I could learn on the job. So I decided to call myself a detective and see what happened. But I hadn’t anticipated such high stakes as searching for a missing child. I knew from watching Without a Trace that every hour was precious in such a search.
“Your first step should be to file a missing person’s report with the police,” I hedged.
“They will not accept one from us, only from the mother. And we cannot convince her to make the report.”
“Alright, I will try to help you.”
Their relief filled the room like helium from a leaking balloon pump. “How much please will we pay?”
“Two hundred a day plus expenses. But you will only pay me when and if I get results,” I added, a futile effort to appease what was left of my conscience. “I saw you arguing with the custodian. What was that about?”
They looked at each other and Norma replied, “That is Karina’s father. Karina is a friend of Edith. We tried to convince him to ask Karina what she knows.”
“I’ll start by talking with him.”
“He does not speak good English. May we translate for him?”
“Good plan.” That might help me get to know the Garcias a little better. I knew enough Spanish to detect bogus translations. Every client of every detective always hides something. It would help to know what the Garcias opted to hide.
They believed Karina’s father was on his lunch break. As we hammered arrangements for them to bring him to my office, the light above my door blinked, alerting me that the outer door had opened.
I had kept the inner office door ajar, so I saw him before he saw me. Thick brows, several shades darker than hair currently the color of MacDonald’s fries. The bad haircut looked freshly sheared. He always had the same shaggy uneven cut that hugged his head like he’d slept on it wet. His anti-style. Today’s ne’er-ironed cotton shirt was taut over the hint of Buddha belly and across the well-pumped shoulders; it billowed like crepe paper across his back.
When he saw me, he reacted with one of his giant smiles that crinkled his cheeks then lit his eyes like a flashbulb light. I released my breath. Typically he was sober when he made that smile.
He entered the room like he always did, like this was the door, the entrance that would change everything. “Hey, kiddo, I been looking for you since – oh, pardon me,” he discovered and greeted the Garcias, who had tensed like he might activate eject buttons.
“This is just my brother,” I reassured them, and wondered whom they had feared would walk in.
“I’m Ben.” He extended his hand to each Garcia, too briefly to find out whether they would reach out to shake. “Hate to interrupt, but may I talk to you for a short minute, please?”
As soon as we reached the hall, he launched his pitch. “Little sister,” he began.
I could tell I would nix whatever he was about to propose, so delayed the unpleasantries with an interruption. “I won’t.”
Pause. Rewind. Replay. Consider. Was I saying no already? “‘S’cuse?”
“I won’t do what my big sister done.”
“Oh. Ha. Good one. Nica, let me crash with you. Just for this week. I can see you are busy. Just give me the key and the address and I’ll have dinner waiting for you.”
So few words, so much subtext. He hadn’t figured out that I was living in my office. It continued to rankle him that I had secretly moved to my (now secretly previous) abode without telling him where that was. He was in a jam and needed a hideout. Or perhaps he just needed to know that I trusted him again. Trusted him enough to reveal my address to him. Except I don’t.
“I can’t, Ben.”
“I’m good now, Neeks. I’ll prove it to you. You’ll see.”
“You need to get back,” and he was gone before we got awkward.
Heading back through the anteroom gave me time to lock the vault on my emotions before I faced the Garcias, who were standing and ready to depart. They dispatched themselves to fetch Karina’s father and all too soon left me staring at the vault door.
It was so easy to fall into Ben’s version of reality, where life was always a gas. The first time I realized he needed help was when I tripped over him where he had passed out with a needle stuck in his arm. Ya think? I like to believe that I would never again be so foolable. But the only way I had a hope of not getting sucked into his whirlpools was to stay away from the water.
Go to next chapter.